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The White Elephant Fleet

Mechanics scavenge parts from outdated planes to go on others the Air Force wants to retire but can't. Congress has ordered that they remain in service.

August 26, 2006|Peter Spiegel | Times Staff Writer

DAVIS-MONTHAN AIR FORCE BASE, Ariz. — It is only 7 a.m., but John Nimrichter has been pulling parts from outdated military airplanes for an hour already. "These things get sizzling hot," he says, looking up at a 1950s-era B-52 bomber sitting on the baked desert just south of Tucson. "You'll lose your breath."

Driving up and down endless rows of mothballed fighters, bombers, helicopters and cargo planes, Nimrichter and a crew of 63 fellow Air Force mechanics mine them for replacement parts for aircraft still in use.

Many pieces go into planes on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan, a cheaper way to repair them than buying new parts. But increasingly, the salvaged parts from the Arizona installation known as "the boneyard" are keeping together aircraft the Air Force doesn't want anymore: B-52s produced in the 1950s; cargo planes from the '60s; in-air refueling tankers dating to the 1950s and '60s.

Even as the Air Force is struggling to find money for new fighters, bombers, tankers and cargo planes, it estimates it will spend close to $1.6 billion over the next five years just to maintain aircraft it wants to jettison. It can't get rid of them -- and free up money for new aircraft -- because often the older aircraft have been given special protections by Congress.

Air Force officials say the protections, many enacted at the behest of lawmakers whose districts might suffer if the aircraft were phased out, have become increasingly burdensome.

The Air Force would like to retire 1,033 of its 6,100 aircraft in the next five years. But more than a third of those it wants to lose must remain in service because of the protections. An additional 492 aircraft the Air Force is considering retiring in the near future are cloaked in similar protections, further limiting options.

"We are trying to retire these aircraft so the old can make way for the new," said Brig. Gen. Charles W. Lyon, who is in charge of long-term planning for the fleet. "Currently, we're primed to keep [some planes] which were designed initially during the Eisenhower era."

Members of Congress who support the bans on retiring certain aircraft cite national security, arguing that the planes perform essential missions. And, they say, it makes no sense to get rid of aircraft that are still useful when the new aircraft are many years from completion.

With the echoes of last year's base-closure fights still in the air, some Air Force officials say they suspect members of Congress are as concerned with keeping their home bases open as they are with fulfilling the needs of the Air Force.

"It becomes a special-interest project on behalf of Congress," said Michael W. Wynne, secretary of the Air Force.

Wynne is careful to not impugn the lawmakers' sincerity -- he thinks most legislators simply do not realize that the ban they're pushing for is just one of many before the Air Force. But the service has begun to take its gloves off.

Both Wynne, who made the issue a priority after assuming office in November, and Gen. T. Michael "Buzz" Moseley, the Air Force chief of staff, have made repeated trips to Capitol Hill to press their case.

The reason for the sudden urgency is, in part, budgetary. Already the Air Force has agreed to cut 40,000 airmen from its active-duty rolls to find money to build new planes.

Of the aircraft it is seeking to retire, the venerable B-52 is among the most expensive to maintain. Designed in the 1950s as the cornerstone of the Strategic Air Command, the "Stratofortress" was the heavy bomber designated during the Cold War to be at the ready to drop nuclear weapons on the Soviet Union. After the Cold War, it found a second life delivering smaller and precision-guided bombs, including during the 2003 Iraq invasion.

But in 1995, the Air Force determined it no longer needed all 94 of its B-52s to complete this more limited mission. It wants to retire 38 of them by 2011, 18 of which would be mothballed this year.

But the Pentagon authorization bill that passed the House in May, like legislation from previous years, bars the Air Force from retiring any of its B-52s until 2018. (NASA will be allowed before then to get rid of the one it owns for testing purposes.)

That provision passed after intense lobbying by lawmakers from North Dakota and Louisiana, where the planes are based. They wrote to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in April to urge him to "reconsider these misguided plans for one of our nation's greatest military assets."

Adam Sharp, a spokesman for Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.), said Landrieu and the three other senators who signed the letter to Rumsfeld -- Louisiana Republican David Vitter and North Dakota Democrats Byron L. Dorgan and Kent Conrad -- believe that the Iraq invasion proves their case: 80 B-52s were used in some capacity during the first month of combat.

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